Reempowering Our Families
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 27, 2000
In her book, The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families, Mary Pipher has written:
There is yet another great human irony writ large in our souls: We are the species most in need of our families; yet, due to our consciousness, we are also the only species able to analyze them, and criticize them, and deconstruct them-- and even, well-meaning or not, destroy them.
Living these human lives of ours-- and living in families-- has never been easy. But there can be little doubt that families in our modern culture are under assault and stress than at no other time before. "Something is terribly wrong with this culture in which parents are expected to function," Mary Pipher writes. "Parents who would have handled things on their own twenty years ago now call for therapy appointments. Often," she finds, "the parents are decent people with reasonable ideas about parenting. The kids seem well meaning and likable, but something clearly isn't working."
We are having to try harder than our parents did twenty or thirty or forty years ago, "and yet [our] children aren't doing as well." In the 1990s, it's become harder to become a "good enough" parent. "Parents [often] seem desperate and loss and their children are bitter and out of control."
And who is often blamed for the "crisis of the family"? Why, if we are to heed the voices "out there" in the culture, the family itself is to blame, of course! "They make an easy target," Dr. Pipher writes. "They are screwed up in a variety of ways. People argue or they don't express themselves, they depend on each other too much, and then let each other down. Families have secrets and shame, overemotional and underemotional members. Family members are too close or too distant, have too much conflict or too little. Family members ignore, control, and perpetually make mistakes. Every family has its Achilles' heel or even its Achilles' torso. We can all tell 'family from hell' stories," Pipher concludes, "usually about our own families."
But such is only one side of the picture-- albeit the side we hear most about. Mary Pipher tries to tell the other side, too-- to tell us about the families that are working, that have found ways to flourish and succeed in the face of an antagonistic culture-- families that continue to do what families are for: "But families are also our shelter from the storm, our oldest and most precious institution and our last great hope."
Increasingly, the family seems an institution depreciated and denigrated in our culture. What has taken its place at the center of our lives? The media has-- and not for the better, either:
"The media forms our new community. The electronic village is our [new] hometown... Parents and children are more likely to recognize Bill Cosby or Jerry Seinfeld than they are their next-door neighbors. All of us know O.J., Michael, Newt, and Madonna. The gossip is about celebrities-- Did Liz [Taylor] spend time at a diet camp? Why did Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts get a divorce? "
"Relationships with celebrities feel personal. We are sad when our favorites-- Jackie, John Lennon, [Princess Diana]-- die. We're happy when Christie Brinkley marries on a mountaintop or when Oprah loses weight. We follow the news of the stars' addictions, health problems, business deals, and relationships. We know their dogs' and children's names. These relationships feel personal. But they aren't."
We have become, in the media's eyes, "one big town". But with none of the nurture, warmth, reciprocity-- none of the "human touch" that genuine community-- genuine family-- entails. For, as Dr. Pipher reminds us:
So, we have vicarious relationships-- in computer speak "virtual relationships"-- instead of real ones. Years ago, a sociologist posited that there was a critical number of social relationships that a person needed each week to stay sane. He speculated that unless seven people genuinely interacted with a person each week, that person would be at risk for mental illness. In our impersonal, media-driven world-- where we have the whole world in our living rooms but no one to talk to-- it's chilling to think how many people may be falling below that critical number.
Healthy societies produce healthy people; decent societies produce decent people. The converse is true as well, of course: Sick cultures produce sick people and indecent cultures produce indecent souls. "Certain environments allow the human spirit to flower," Mary Pipher writes. She cites as example New England (especially Concord) in the mid-1800s-- the time and place of Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (all three Unitarians-- hmm...) "The mood of that time and place was optimistic, adventurous, and striving..."
As counter-examples, she cites 20th Century Communist China (or, we could add, Stalin's Soviet Union): places that "produced people whose souls were scarred by the adjustments they made to survive." Our own society seems schizophrenic when it speaks about families. On the one hand, they are idealized-- and on the other hand, they're demonized. The idealized version portrays families as wellsprings of love and happiness, loyal, wholesome and true. This is the version we see in Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best. And while we may know that such a version is hopelessly out of date and of only limited value in this frenetically-changing world, we yearn for it nonetheless. We know, deep inside, that there were aspects of this vision that might have been worth saving. But now, we fear, it's too late; we can't go back; we can't go back...
So, instead of the idealized family as our model, we have the predominant cultural metaphor of the dysfunctional family instead. From the 1990s onward, the dysfunctional version of the family seems the most influential. "This [perspective] goes along with [our] culture of narcissism," Mary Pipher believes, "which sells people the idea that families get in the way of individual fulfillment."
"Currently, many Americans are deeply distrustful of their own and other people's families. Pop psychology presents families as pathology-producing. Talkshows make families look like hotbeds of sin and sickness. Day after day people testify about the diverse forms of emotional abuse they suffered in their families. Movies and television often portray families as useless impediments."
Most tragically in our culture, after a certain age, children no longer seem to have permission to love their parents. "We define adulthood as breaking away, disagreeing, and making up new rules. Just when teenagers most need their parents, they are [most] encouraged to distance from them." She relates an experience of one of her friends-- one that probably all of us who currently have teenage children can relate to:
Of course, a big part of life is about this differentiation and individuation, and adolescents finding their own way in life and-- yes-- breaking away from the bonds of family and home and parents... But there's a real big difference between healthy individuation and growing independent, and seeing parents (and family) as toxic-- the enemy-- the rock group Megadeath has another phrase for it which (even I) can't repeat here...
But the modern family (or is it the "postmodern family"?) can't just be built on nostalgia for the way things "used to be". Certainly, the pace of life was slower in years gone-by; there was usually one parent at home keeping eyes on things; there was more time to be intentional about fostering the bonds that tied families together. Though it didn't always happen, even then... Not everything in the past was better:
Likewise, in a community that looked inward, that had grown too small, people could not be open if they were of an alternative sexual orientation or lifestyle-- or even political viewpoint. Women stayed home-- whether they wanted to or not. It is tempting to idealize the past-- but not always accurate-- and not really helpful.
Better, then, to do as Mary Pipher does in The Shelter of Each Other-- and look back at the past and gleen from it what might be useful in building helpful and sustaining and nurturing families and communities right now, in our own time. But too much nostalgia can leave us hungry for that which we can never have. Rather than dwell in a past that never be brought back (even if we wanted to), it's more helpful (and hopeful) to look critically at our own day and age-- at our own culture and our own families-- and discern what it is we can do to build and rebuild and reempower our families (and with them, our communities, and ultimately, our culture).
Most importantly of all, she says, we need to stop pathologizing our families and start politicizing them instead. In spite of what many models of therapy have told us, family is not in her view, the main cause of the social problems our society faces. Rather, the family, too, is predominantly a victim of an economic totalitarianism which places material accumulation above strengthening human ties; which says that wealth is more important than people; and whose only values are those of the economic market place.
"Our country has moved from small, isolated communities to one big company town. Wal-Marts have replaced the small stores and Pizza Hut and Taco Bell have replaced the city cafes. We are united by our media and by what we consume. All over America, regional dialects and ethnic accents disappear as children learn a generic language from television.
"Civic organizations such as the Elks, Lions, and Moose... are being replaced by mailing list organizations. Shopping channels and [computer auctions... keep local folks from gathering... We've changed from a nation of primary relationships [in which people 'know each other in a multiplicity of roles] to one of secondary relationships [in which people are strangers]. We don't know their parents, their religion, where they live, or if they have a dog. We only know about their role at a particular moment." Others become less people to us than items to be manipulated and used. In Buber's terms, they cease to be "thou"'s and become "it"'s to us instead.
By 1990, 72% of Americans didn't know their neighbors. The number of people who day they never spend time with their neighbors has doubled in the past 20 years. More and more, in the words of John Prine, "People live in their heads. They fantasize about affairs with people they will never meet. Our children move among strangers."
Our tools only serve to isolate us further from one another. This is especially true of television. "The 'produced' relationships of television families become our models for intimacy.' But, of course, television is innately inaccurate and skewed when it comes to reflecting real life. We know that-- but if it's true, as studies show that people spend (on average) eight hours a day watching television, then (for many people), the world of t.v. becomes how life "really is".
But, the truth is, of course, that "Most real life is rather quiet and routine-- a hot shower, a sunset, a bowl of good soup or a good book..." That's the real stuff-- the simple, satisfying joys of which life is made. But if we compare our lives to the high drama, the melodramatic love affairs, the constant sex of television, then we'll naturally feel there's "something wrong" with us, something missing, even in the fullest "ordinary" life-- and so, we'll be dissatisfied-- we'll feel "something missing"-- an undefined emptiness that advertisers are only too happy to peddle us goods to fill...
What can our families do, then, to counter this toxic culture? How do we decide that we will parent our children-- and Calvin Klein or R.J. Reynolds or the opportunists of Wall Street?
In two major ways, Mary Pipher believes:
She provides her own list of "suggestions for healthy families" for us to work with. She also reminds us that we don't have to do it all. We don't have to be perfect. All families have strengths and weaknesses; they do some things well, and other things not so well. But they try-- and they love one another-- and usually, things work out all right.
In a healthy family, Mary Pipher believes, self-definition is encouraged, but not worshipped. Diversity is tolerated, even valued and encouraged. Differences are aired openly, and disagreement isn't seen as disloyalty.
But healthy families also need certain core values which undergird everything and which are beyond question. They know, for instance, that sexism or homophobia won't be tolerated-- that all people are entitled to respect-- that there is no place for lording it over others, and that if you're going to make it in life, you have to learn to work hard and do your best.
Good parents try their best to be present emotionally-- but they don't haunt their children's every waking moment with their omnipresence. This is especially true as kids get older. They do need "space" to grow. We have to protect our kids from making the real big mistakes at all costs. Other than that, we need to give them freedom to move and be themselves.
Strong families have the knack for optimism, for seeing the long picture. They aren't constantly in a crisis mode, where every little bump along the way (and there are gonna a whole lot of them) threatens to overturn the whole caravan. They don't live in denial, and pretend that problems don't exist. But they don't blow problems out of proportion, either.
Families teach their members to manage pain. Not to medicate it away. Not to dull it beneath this or that addiction. But to feel it, respond to it, and move beyond it. Good families are places where we have a good cry. But they are places that encourage to heal as well.
Good families know that no experience is worthless if it teaches us lessons. If it didn't kill us, then it was good for us. It might not have been much fun at the time-- but it's all about learning and teaching one another and making mistakes and getting back up and doing it again and maybe even getting it right sometimes! That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger.
Good families are about joy. They know that God must have a sense of humor, 'cuz God created each of us-- and gave us these crazy, mixed up, half-cracked families of ours. Good families have their stupid rituals, their own language, their special stories that makes sense to absolutely no one else.
Good families find ways to protect their time. They do without things so they can have more time together. They honor the times they have by creating special rituals and seeking their special places and remember their special days. They honor the individual interests of each family member-- but they have lots of things they like to do in common, too. They know how to fight (and fight fair)-- and they know how to celebrate.
And they know how to connect with other families. They shelter one another from the toxic storm of a culture that doesn't really care about us. But their doors are open to all men and women and children of goodwill because (to change the metaphor) we're all in this boat together, and the only refuge we have from the storm is the shelter of each other.
So, Mary Pipher asks in closing-- which story shall we listen to: "Chicken Little" or "The Ugly Duckling"? Maybe we need a little of both.
Chicken Little may be right in our own day and age-- maybe the sky is falling-- or at least, the pseudo-sky of a culture that families as the enemy-- of an economic system where people are defined solely as units of consumption. Let that fake ceiling fall to the ground, so we can glimpse at last the glorious heaven above!
Maybe our families seem like such Ugly Ducklings sometimes. They're so dysfunctional, we've been told... so ugly.. so toxic... so old fashioned and out of the loop...
But maybe we're not ugly ducklings at all, but beautiful swans-- families of faith and hope and most of all love-- waiting for our time burgeon forth into all we can become. Beautiful creations of compassion and nurturing, who need just a little encouragement-- a little hope-- and a lot more time to grow to bless this world and all creatures of the world.
Maybe our most ordinary families aren't so bad after all. Maybe we are even functional families-- or at least functioning families, more often than we realize. Maybe we have within our hearts the love we need to shelter one another, and the courage we need to remake the face of the world.